Pandemic Series: Identity and Resilience

The Press Herald has published the final article in their 5-part series on the pandemic’s impact on the Portland restaurant industry. Today’s article looks back at the factors that contributed to the success of the hospitality industry pre-pandemic and shares confidence that the restaurant scene will rebound albeit changed by the experience of the past year plus.

For more than a decade, Portland has enjoyed a national reputation as a food town, a place to go for its impressive restaurants, expansive craft beer scene and independent groceries trading in local food sourced from nearby farms and the adjacent sea. Looking for a cider house, an upscale knife store, a well-stocked cheese shop, an Eritrean restaurant or a hummusiya? Portland’s got those and much more. Its status as a bustling, walkable food town may be hardly a blip in the city’s almost 400-year-old history, but to many of its residents today, its intertwined food, drinks and restaurant scene is a source of pride, jobs, community, entertainment – even a reason they moved here.

Pandemic Series: Labor Shortage

Today’s Press Herald includes the fourth article in a 5-part series on the pandemic’s impact on the Portland restaurant industry. Today’s article reports on the tight labor market for restaurant staff and the factors contributing to it.

Over the last year plus, you’ve lost much of your staff through furloughs and layoffs. Some you’ve hired back. Some have left the industry for good; real data is hard to come by, but estimates predict as much as 25 percent of the workforce may never return. At the same time, restaurant staffers still overseeing their children’s schooling and care may not be able to work their usual hours. And federal unemployment assistance – that extra $300 a week – has been extended through early September, the beating heart of Maine’s tourism season, providing a disincentive to work, some employers say.

Pandemic Series: Ripple Effect

Today’s Press Herald includes the third article in a 5-part series on the pandemic’s impact on the Portland restaurant industry. Today’s article reports on the ripple effect to suppliers, farmers and fishermen.

The impact of the momentary collapse and stunted recovery of Portland’s restaurants has reverberated across an ecosystem of businesses. Many of those are still in survival mode, grabbing whatever federal and state aid they can and changing business models and practices to earn new revenue and hang on for better times.

Pandemic Series: Microcosm

Today’s Press Herald has published the second article in a 5-part series on the pandemic’s impact on the Portland restaurant industry. Today’s article takes a close look at the path taken by 7 establishments along Middle Street, examining them “a microcosm of an industry that has been roiled by the pandemic”.

Some have closed permanently, all at least temporarily. They’ve had to reinvent themselves continually, switching to takeout, meal kits and groceries and sending lobster rolls winging around the U.S. They’ve laid off staff and brought them back, or in some cases not; coped with constant uncertainty, positive COVID tests, maddening unemployment applications, and onerous paperwork for loans and grants.

Pandemic Series: Perseverance

Today’s Maine Sunday Telegram has published the first article in a 5-part series on the pandemic’s impact on the Portland restaurant industry. Today’s article is titled Threatened by Coronavirus, City’s Restaurants Turn Tables.

Over the summer, Portland lost restaurants like the critically acclaimed Drifters Wife, the tiny modern Italian bistro Piccolo, and the all-local Vinland that were among those responsible for its national reputation as a culinary destination. The devastating early predictions of closures – that 85 percent of independent restaurants nationwide might not survive until the end of 2020 – seemed to be playing out. Then government aid began to flow, putting out immediate financial fires, saving jobs and giving restaurants breathing room. Portland appears to be faring better than bigger restaurant cities like New York and Portland, Oregon, where an estimated one in six and one in seven restaurants, respectively – including national chain restaurants – had closed by the end of 2020. By comparison, a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram survey of the more than 300 independent restaurants and cafes in Portland with on-premise dining shows that about 1 in 14 have permanently shuttered.

Also in today’s paper, restaurant critic Andrew Ross interviews some of his predecessors about their time in the critics chair and their take on the food scene of today.

For some historical perspective and future-facing insight, I reached out to the four long-serving Dine Out alumni to help me look back at Maine’s culinary landscape from the decade (and a bit) covering 2005-2016. In two weeks, I’ll offer some of my own reflections on the past five years and speculate about what’s to come.

Hospitality Labor Shortage

The Portland Phoenix has published an article on challenges restaurants and other food and beverage business are currently encountering in hiring staff.

A recent HospitalityMaine membership survey found 96 percent are hiring right now. Member establishments were also asked to rank how difficult hiring has been on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 the most difficult; 80 percent of respondents said hiring has been at a 4 or 5, which indicates “difficult” or “extremely difficult.”

For more information on this subject read this recent article by Restaurant Manifesto.

Restaurant Revitalization Fund

The Small Business Administration page for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is now live. In contains information on the guidelines for the $28.6 billion grant program as well as details on the paperwork and data that will be required to apply.

According to information from the Independent Restaurant Coalition, the application portal for the grants should launch by the end of April. The IRC also has assembled an FAQ to address key pieces of background information.

Outdoor Dining

Eater Boston has assembled some suggestions for outdoor drinking and dining in Portland.

As spring slowly approaches, and as eaters begin itching to get outside and dine al fresco, patio dining in Portland, Maine is re–emerging. The City of Portland has expanded its rules for outdoor spaces, which means diners will find more open-air options than in previous years. After a snowy (and freezing cold) winter, who doesn’t want to take advantage of as much time in the sun as possible?

For the full list of outdoor options see this list on Portland Food Map.

Process Improvement

Dave Aceto from Arcadia, racial equity activist Tori Lyn and Alec Haviland from Dear Dairy are working together to identify needed improvements to the Portland permitting and inspection process. Here’s how Haviland wrote about this effort on instagram,

Dave Aceto, Tori Lyn and I have been working on a project to try to make the permitting and inspection process in Portland more equitable, more accessible and more efficient. After slogging through the process this past year I felt like, if we came together as constituents and legislators, we could build a better future for all current and prospective business owners. We’ve all heard the joke made when talking about our new projects, You: “So we are planning to be open in June!” Them: “Oh that’s so cute! So we’ll see you in February?” Honestly, I feel like we joke about it so we don’t cry about it. I sincerely believe that, especially coming out of the pandemic and into a time of healing and growth, our community needs to come together to make it easier for everyone to grow their projects.

As part of their process Lyn, Haviland and Aceto are looking to get input from a wide variety of business owners about their own experiences. You can contribute to their efforts by filling out this survey.

Food Delivery Regulations

The Press Herald reports that two Portland city councilors are working to address business tactics by national food delivery services.

City Councilors Andrew Zarro and Pious Ali are drafting a proposal that would likely require third-party food delivery services to have formal agreements with local businesses before offering delivery of their food and may limit the service fees they can charge.

Zarro said it’s unethical for delivery services such as DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats to make money off local businesses without their consent, while also posting incorrect information about an establishment’s menu, hours and contact information.

In a foodie city like Portland, quality, experience and branding is everything. And, he said, local businesses need more control.

The issue got traction over last weekend with this instagram post by city councilor Andrew Zarro.